California police accused of bending badges in ritual to mark on-duty kills

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An investigation has been launched into a group of California police officers accused bending their badges to mark how many people they’ve killed while on duty and then partying at backyard barbecues to commemorate the occasion.

According to a report by Open Vallejo, “a secretive clique” within the Vallejo Police Department has participated in the so-called “Badge of Honor” ritual for nearly a generation. The lengthy investigation uncovered that at least 14 of the 51 current and former officers have been involved in fatal shootings since 2000 and then had a point of their badge bent by a fellow officer.

At least seven officers’ badges have multiple bends, according to witnesses and photos obtained by the local news outlet.

John Whitney, a former SWAT commander, said he was promptly fired after his push to investigate the secret ritual and other department misconduct. The former police captain said he first became aware of the practice in February 2019, following the shooting of 20-year-old Willie McCoy.

At the time of Whitney’s firing, 40% of officers on the force had been in at least one shooting. Of those, more than a third had participated in two or more.

At least one of the three officers named in the Open Vallejo report denied participating in the ritual.

“My badge has never been bent. That’s a lie,” said Steve Darden, a member of Vallejo’s command staff who was put in charge of the city’s Hostage Negotiation Team following a promotion to lieutenant in February.

Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan, a retired police sergeant, said he saw bent badges when he worked under Vallejo Police Chief Robert Nichelini, who has denied any knowledge of the ritual.

“When I was on the Police Department, I did notice that there were a couple of officers that had bent badge tips,” he told Open Vallejo. “I had no idea what happened. Nobody said anything back then.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra earlier this month announced an “expansive review” of the department’s policies, practices and procedures. He added a separate criminal probe July 17, after officers destroyed key evidence in the killing of 22-year-old Sean Monterrosa last month.

The Open Vallejo investigation comes after a 2019 report from NBC Bay Area, which revealed the small department’s officers kill more people per capita than all but two other cities in California.

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